A Record Collection Of Links

Collecting In The Age Of Streaming Music

The guest essay comes from Robbert van Ooijen, a graduating master student New Media & Digital Culture at the Dutch University of Utrecht. It's based on a research paper he wrote at the wonderful Dutch start-up Twones and asks what remains of the intimate relationship between collector and collection in the age of streaming music. van Ooijen also blogs @ HaveYouHeard.It.

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The world is about to embrace streaming music and and a lot has been written about the technical specifications of several streaming music services already. What is often still underexposed however, is the way this new era of consuming music is affecting the way we listen, organize and collect music. The music lover is standing on the threshold of a collection that consists only of links to streams. In the era of streaming music, what is left of the relationship between the collector and his collection?

Why Collect?

In the 1930s the German culture philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote about collecting and the relationship between the collector is his collection in the famous essay .Unpacking my library'. When Benjamin unpacks his books after moving to another house, he recalls the places where he bought his books and the memories that are connected to them. For all of us, this is a recognizable feeling. The first single that was bought, the album that was played often with a young lover and the CD that accompanied the whole summer holiday.

The collector is connected with the separate parts of his collection and without the owner, the collection also loses the biggest part of its meaning. A collection therefore is more than a chaotic gathering of stuff, it is a way to structure and visualize images and memories from the past. It's a reflection of someone's life and his identity. How often do we look at someone's music collection to find out what kind of person he or she is?

The End of Tactile Information Carriers

The tactile collection like Benjamin described it has been disappearing in the last years. Vinyl got replaced by CDs in the 1980s, the CD collection was ripped to the computer and eventually it was transferred to iPod or smartphone. The developments in online streaming music are now making music disappear from our hard drives. More and more the collection will be stored in the cloud. What remains of the relation between the collector and his collection when the collection is a weightless, endless cloud of data?

New Influences & New Life.

When the American author Julian Dibbel in 2000 wrote an essay in line with Benjamin, he describes how he is digitizing his CD collection. When digitizing his collection he declares that this doesn't feel like just moving the music but more like reviving it.  Those who have already transferred their MP3 collection to Spotify will probably share this opinion. Like unpacking the books made Benjamin remember all those moments in his life and this also happened with Dibbel ripping his CD collection this will also happen when organizing the new online streaming music collection.

Of course the developments in the personal music collection results in the disappearance of some trusted elements that are associated with collecting. The most important of them probably is the disappearance of tangibility. Like many book lovers are attached to having a book in their hands, many will also love to hold carriers of music, whether these are gramophones, vinyls or CDs. This tangibility was already steadily decreasing in the era of MP3 and will continue to do so in the age of streaming music. However, the developments also result in new infusions becoming a part of collecting. The most important of them
probably is the amplification of the social element in music. Music has always been a part of social life but developments in online music have amplified this element and gave it more attention. Napster connected music lovers to fellow collectors, Last.fm connects people with the same taste in music and in the latest updates of big stream services like Spotify and MOG, music collections are being tied to Facebook profile pages giving social features like sharing and discovering music via friends a central place.

Old habits and pleasures don't have to disappear in the age of streaming music though, which can be seen in the popularity of playlists and personal compilation albums that are being assembled and shared in and around these new music services. In history, one of  the main activities of the collector has been making order in the different parts of his collection. Vinyls and CDs were arranged on release date, genre or special occasion and keeping this order in the collection was an activity that enabled the collector to take a trip down memory lane. This habit persists and revives in the age of streaming music with the ease with which everyone can organize their collection into compilations and sub-collection with just a few clicks.

A Revived Relationship.

In the age of streaming music, the way one builds a music collection, the looks of it and the way it is maintained differs from the collection as we used to know it. But is the intimate relationship between collector and collection disappearing in the age of streaming music? The ease with which an old classic record can be rediscovered, the accessibility of the collection and the renewed connection with fellow collectors shows that this opinion would be wrong. When we look at the developments in online streaming music, we can see that the ways in which a collector can give meaning to an otherwise rather chaotic gathering of stuff, is only increasing. With this, the passion that goes into collecting is only increasing in the age of streaming music.

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  1. I wonder, though, if one element of collecting has disappeared in the age of digital files: the scarce object.
    Most collectors seem to relish finding something rare, which may also often be more expensive than the less rare. But now there really aren’t any rare music files. Well, I suppose there are still some that have either yet to become available online, or haven’t been widely discovered yet online. But if every recorded song becomes available to every person and we get to the point where everyone can have everything, collecting music may become less important.
    On the other hand, establishing relationships between what is available is still fun. Mashup culture may replace collectible culture for digital files.

  2. Vinyl never died. A much more compelling solution than keyboards and screens, at least in my humble. Curation of metadata is shitwork — not interesting, not engaging, time intensive.
    There’s also already a number of apps that will organize a digital music collection FOR you (automation of shitwork being the primary reason computers were invented) so I’d say skip the clicks and dig the turntable out of the closet instead.

  3. As a collector a definitely agree with u. though iI must say that regardless the tangibility, we are talking about the quality! No one can compare the sound of original CD and of course the sound of Vinyl to the shity sound we get when we download music. I will never stop buying music, specially Vinyl

  4. @Suzanne That’s an interesting point and I agree with you. It’s one of the things that is indeed changing, and I think it’s a matter of opinion whether this is a good or a bad thing.
    @Justin Curation of metadata can indeed be annoying, but eventually it does enable you to engage with your collection really quick in ways that were not possible before. E.g. Finding all the works of an artist in a given period with just a few clicks.

  5. any suggestions for music library management software? i tolerate iTunes, i want to like OrangeCD more than I do…what else is out there? My shitwork might as well be fully structured shitwork….

  6. I sincerely doubt the whole “grand vision” of “everything in the cloud” that is being touted by a lot bloggers in the last year or two.
    There are at least two very serious drawbacks of cloud storage that almost no-one talks about, and if they do they’ll just quickly mention it as a con and not even examine it.
    1. Intermittant connectivity. Not everyone lives in a major 1st world city where high speed mobile broadband is cheap and ubiquitous. Hell, I live in a 1st world capital city (Sydney) and even here 3G is patchy as hell, not to mention the many places where you’ll probably never get it. (eg: underground carparks, train/road tunnels, etc.) Do I want the music in my car to cut out everytime I drive into a tunnel, carpark or deep cutting? NO.
    2. Control. You have no control of what happens in the cloud. There are an absolute myriad of reasons that I can think of straight off the bat that might cause the operator of the cloud of your choice to decide to remove data form the cloud that is important to you. Licencing disputes, re-examination of cost/benefit by cloud operators, plain old accident or incompetence, the list goes on. When that happens, where is your right to appeal, where is you backup?
    I think some of the enthusiasm for cloud storage is coming from people wanting to shed themselves of the responsibility of backing up their data. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news but this just aint so. Putting your important files *solely* in the hands of a big faceless corp who couldn’t care less about your particular drop in the ocean is both naive and just plain stoopid. (Looking at you Google Docs)
    Sure, use cloud services to share with others or make it accessible from multiple access points, but you still have to back it up to your own storage regularly if you care about it.
    Either of these reasons alone is enough to give me serious pause about using cloud based services. Both of them together make it a total non-starter in my book.
    I’m not there is no place for cloud services, but I think a lot of people who are currently full of optimism for it are going to be in for a rude shock when the first major “cloud evaporation” event happens (either to them individually or a mass scale event)
    After “evaporation” has been big news a few times I think people will have a much more moderate attitude towards cloud services than the current gushing optimism that’s going around.

  7. “I think some of the enthusiasm for cloud storage is coming from people wanting to shed themselves of the responsibility of backing up their data.”
    An astute and juicy point, man, thank you for that.

  8. When I moved house last time, we had nearly six tons of stuff. Probably half of that was my collection of perhaps 5000 LPs and 10,000 CDs. We’re planning to move again as soon as we can sell this house. This time we must travel lighter. I’ve kept about 5-10% of the collection on disc, had the rest of it ripped to a 1TB hard drive. Soon I hope to see how much lighter that makes us.

  9. I think it is interesting that you do not address the fact that vinyl sales increased 33% last year in the U.S. alone.

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